Review: The Calculating Stars

Author Mary Robinette Kowal doesn’t know anything about me …. so it’s not possible she understood that when she wrote “The Calculating Stars,” she was writing the one book I could not possibly resist reading.

Perhaps she was aware of the many women of my generation and older who can still remember the landing on the moon, and the fervor afterwards with which so many people wanted to go do that, too.

Some of those who were watching knew they could maybe do this. And some of us knew we couldn’t. And some of us thought that fact was terribly unfair.

Star Trek was exploring strange new worlds back then, and they had room aboard ship for my idol Lieutenant Uhura, and for whatever female ensign Captain Kirk had his eye on that week. Jane Fonda’s Barbarella struck me as more silly than admirable, but at least she was in outer space, too.

So, after the first landing on the moon, I bravely declared to my mother that I wished to become an astronaut. She looked at me curiously, like perhaps I possessed some troublesome quality she hadn’t been aware of.

“Find a more realistic ambition,” was all she said. I never brought it up again.

When I was little, my father flew small planes. Yet, he seemed every bit as puzzled as my mother once was, when years later I told him I had started to take flying lessons. I was out of college by then, making okay money as a technical writer. This is what I wanted to do with those earnings. I thought he’d be proud.

“Okay ….. ” was all he said. Before long, he sent me all his study manuals on flying, with a simple note. “If you’re going to be a pilot, be a good one.”

It would be decades more before I learned that he once flipped a plane while trying to land it, and had never flown again. The story we’d been told as kids was that it “got too expensive” for him to fly.

And it is expensive. Much as I loved it, I clearly was never going to be a commercial pilot, much less an astronaut. Before too long I moved on to other, more realistic dreams.

Then along comes this book.

It’s not just about women in space, it’s about women my mother’s age getting to go. Give me a break. How does this happen?

Oh. The blurb says a meteorite hits the earth and threatens to destroy all life. That’s all it takes to get women in the 1950’s into the space program? Cool. Bring on the meteorite. (Just kidding. Of course.)

Forgive the long preamble, but I felt I ought to explain why, by the time I was on about page 20, this had become my favorite book of all time.  A little context can be helpful.

Now, for a more objective look.

Pilot and mathematician Elma York is well qualified for the space program and she wants to join it. Author Kowal recognizes the difficulties of creating a character with a brilliant mind who is also a highly skilled aviator, is beautiful, is well liked by her family and friends, and who has a loving husband as talented as she is.

Kowal gives her an Achilles heel to balance out her many gifts and to make her goal of getting into space more difficult. On occasion I thought she took this “little problem” a bit further than was believable for a woman who had accomplished so much, but it did work to make the plot more interesting, and to make Elma a more believable human.

She also chose to give her an ethnicity (Jewish, right after WWII), which I thought was interesting but less pertinent to the story. Perhaps it ties better into the previous short works, or it will tie more into the sequels?

Much of the beginning of the book has to do with the meteorite and it’s aftermath. This part is chilling, and incredibly well written. I could hardly put the book down.

The second part centers on the accelerated space program being developed to help save humanity. Here Elma York encounters the sexism of much of the military, but she also faces the ingrained, even almost silly sexism of the time period. (Astronettes? Really?) It rings true.

Luckily, she is surrounded and supported by a strong group of women, many of them fellow pilots and quite a few of them also women of color, who are facing a whole ‘nother set of unfortunate biases. These women have a handful of male allies (including Elma’s husband) and, to no ones surprise, eventually they all prevail.

Kowal accepting the Hugo award

Kowal does try to bring in details about how her society reacts to the climate change brought on by the meteorite, and in doing so she obliquely addresses our own society’s struggles with abating climate change. She doesn’t hit you over the head with the comparison, and it adds a nice bit of social consciousness to the story.

The book is suspenseful in that the reader wants to see Elma go into space and wants to learn how she does it. However, it lacks any large plot twists or deep philosophical ideas. (Both of those are things I love in books.) So I have to admit this is more of “just a fun story” about talented and good people getting to do what they ought to be doing. It’s a cheer along book, but instead of being about a little league team or some such thing that doesn’t interest me, it’s about women getting to what I always wanted to do. So. I really enjoyed cheering along.

 

 

 

 

Have Courage

In “Layers of Light” a teenage girl and an elderly woman join others in a daring rescue attempt. One of the themes of this book is that all humans are capable of impressive courage, including the many demographics we don’t usually associate with this trait.

I’m trying to show more courage in my own life, and for me right now that translates into being more honest about who I am. My deep dark secret? I write science fiction ….

This may seem to some as nothing to hide, but I’ve worn a lot of different hats and made acquaintances in a lot of different arenas.  In many settings, my secret life as a teller of fantastic tales would be considered odd at best.

None the less ….

When I reissued my first novel x0 as the the shiny new “One of One” last week, I decided to send an email about it to everyone in my contacts list. Everyone. I guess I saw it as a sort of therapy. Here I am. I make up stuff and I’m proud of it.

How many people are in your contacts list? I had no idea, but mine included over 700. So the first thing I accomplished was cleaning it out. Getting rid of people I knew I didn’t want in there took it down to more like five hundred, and getting rid of those I had no clue who they were got me to 434.

Then I parceled it into groups, thinking that way I wouldn’t have to hide everyone behind a bcc and have a greater risk of ending up in their junk folders. You know, high school friends. College friends. My husband’s relatives. I made my way through every category that had two or more entrants and I will say I learned a great deal about my own life and the people I’d bothered to stay in touch with along the way. Some segments are well represented, others barely at all. Interesting.

I finished it all with a category called “you’re a friend I can’t classify” and called it done.

Then I sent everyone an email saying

You know what happened? Yup, about 390 people didn’t get the email, didn’t open it, or didn’t respond. That’s not what matters. Forty or fifty people did, and they contacted me and said “wow, that’s really cool.”

Yeah.

 

c3 is dead

What prompts an author to kill her own book?

A few weeks ago my fourth novel, c3, was killed by own hand. It made me sad. I finished writing c3 in late 2013, and released it on Kindle February 6, 2014. I’ve been told its hero, teenager Teddie Zeitman with her exuberant heart and a talent for out-of-body experiences, is one of my best creations. Green happens to be my favorite color, and the ethereal cover for c3 was my favorite of all the six.

But times change. Goodreads shows only three people currently reading my novel. Sales have gone from small to nearly zero.

I’ve never totaled up the exact sales, because it’s hard to separate a sale from a give-away but I suspect I’ve been paid for about a hundred copies (if you don’t count friends and family.) I’d hoped for more sales, of course, but every time a stranger liked my book and let me know, it delighted me. No regrets.

A few months ago, I attended a conference of science fiction writers, and signed up for a mentor. It may have been one of my more useful decisions. This professional writer pointed out that I could still have a marketable product in this particular story, but I needed a more genre-appropriate cover, a much better title, and an updated and aggressive marketing plan.

I can change the title of my book? Apparently I can. I need a new ISBN number (no problem). I  need to acknowledge to the new reader what has been done (just in case he or she is one of the 200 or so humans who already read this story.)

And …. I needed to kill c3. That is, it had to go off the market completely. No electronic versions for sale, although those who have it obviously always will. No new paperbacks printed and sold, although nothing can prevent current owners from reselling their copies on Amazon and elsewhere.

Over the years, I’ve eliminated all the hyperlinks in the book, and the text that went with them. I’ve made corrections and done minor clean-up. Why not. But I’ve refrained from doing anything major.

Because this will be a new book, I have the chance to do some serious editing. So I am. I’m giving more attention to point of view. I’m taking the techniques I’ve learned over the past six years, at conferences, from other writers, and simply from practicing my craft for hours every week, and I’m doing my best to fold those learnings into telling my story better.

It is still a work in progress, but so far I’m pleased with the result.

So while c3 will soon cease to exist, it will give birth to a new and better novel, to be called Layers of Light. I’ll be blogging all about it here soon.

 

Review: Off Season

This is a blog devoted to women’s issues, and I don’t usually review books here. However, I’m making an exception for Off Season, and will do so again for books related specifically to the challenges women face.  See the end of this post for details about reviews on this blog.

Review Summary: E.S. Ruete tells a difficult story with compassion and bursts of eloquence. I rate it 3.8/5.0. My full review is below.

About this book: Dottie woke up wondering where she was and why she was so cold. The first thing she noticed was that she must be outside – she was lying on cold ground and snow was hitting her in unusual places. That’s when she noticed the second thing. Her skirt was pulled up past her waist and her panties were gone. Damn those bastards. It started to come back to her. Dottie is now on an odyssey; a journey not of her choosing; a journey of healing, integration, and reconciliation that will involve her partner, her friends, her enemies, her church, her whole community. And her rapists. As she fights her way through social stereotypes about rape and rape victims, she also finds the strength to overcome society’s messages of who she should be and lays claim her true self. But the memories, the loss, the anger – and the fears – never go away. No woman chooses to be raped. I asked Dottie why she chose to tell me a story of rape. She said that millions of women, hundreds every day, have stories of rape that never get told. She told her story because she could. Because she had to. Because maybe people would hear in a work of fiction a Truth that they could not hear in any other way.

About the author: E.S “Ned” Ruete is an author, speaker, group facilitator, women’s rights activist, LGBTQIPA+ ally, lay preacher, guitar picker, and business analyst. He is the author of Seeking God: Finding God’s both/and in an either/or world and Lead Your Group to Success: A Meeting Leader’s Primer.

Now retired, Ned lives in Niantic, Connecticut with his second wife. He continues to offer pro bono group facilitation and facilitation training to schools, churches, community groups and not-for-profit organizations. He has led strategic planning retreats for United Action Connecticut (UACT), Fiddleheads Food Co-op, and ReNew London. He is actively involved in LGBTQIPA+ advocacy and annually attends and presents sessions at the True Colors Conference. He is a member of the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) formerly served on the Association Coordinating Team (ACT, the IAF Board of Directors). He was associate editor of Group Facilitation: A Research and Applications Journal and has contributed articles to Group Facilitation, The Facilitator, and other publications on group facilitation and management consulting.

Off Season is Mr. Ruete’s first fiction work. See his consulting products at MakingSpaceConsulting.com and his books at MakingSpaceConsulting.com/Publish.

Individual Author Links for Ned Ruete:
Twitter
FaceBook

Giveaway: The author will be awarding a $50 Amazon/BN gift card at the end of the tour. Learn more and register to win.

My full review: This is only partly a heartfelt tale about the effects of rape. It is just as much the story of an older lesbian woman seeking acceptance from her church after having spent years living with her partner but hiding the true nature of their relationship.

What I liked best.

  1. At first, it is hard to fathom why a man would write such a book. Many women would be inclined to think this story should be told by those who can tell it authentically. Yet, when the author explains that Dottie appeared in his head to demand he tell her story, I understood. (I’ve had characters do that, too.) Indeed, he channels her emotions with all the understanding one could ask for. My favorite quote from the book:

We don’t have a word for what is taken from us in rape, but the only thing more intimate, more personal, more important, more irreplaceable is a life. We need a name for this thing, so we can talk about it, understand it, learn about the pain that comes when it is lost.

  1. The author picks an unlikely rape victim, I think at least partly to make the point that sexual attraction and interaction are not at the root of sexual assault. Dottie doesn’t fit society’s stereotype of beauty, she is older and a little overweight. Her complete lack of sexual interest in men makes it clear no misunderstood flirtation is involved, in spite of accusations to the contrary. Dottie’s assault is conveyed without an ounce of eroticism. In fact, the author has one of the perpetrators consider after-the-fact how different real sexual assault is from the fantasies he has had.
  2. This is not a story of despair, it is a story of courage. There is no sugar coating of the trauma or the recovery, yet there is recovery, not only by Dottie but by others as well. Assault survivor Alice, who is also the mother of a transgender child, was an excellent complex character. I loved her approach of “I’m still listening.”

What I liked least.

  1. This is as much about LGBTQ+ acceptance by fundamentalist Christians as it is about sexual assault. I wholeheartedly support this acceptance, but, like many readers, I am not part of this sort of Christian community. I had a great deal of trouble understanding why Dottie stayed with this church, or cared what its members thought of her. The author spends a lot of time presenting his arguments for this acceptance, including descriptions of biblical characters and actual quotes from the bible. If that is ones moral yardstick, I suppose these arguments are needed, but I thought they belonged in a different book, one written specifically for a Christian audience struggling with this issue. I found myself skipping over the lengthy sermons and religious debates, anxious to get on with Dottie’s story of recovery.
  2. On the other hand, the book is short; in my opinion shorter than it should be. I felt several secondary characters warranted having more of their stories told, and resolution reached. Many threads are dropped concerning Dottie’s struggles and concerning the criminal investigation and eventual fates of her attackers. I understand this is not meant to be a crime book, but those of us who came to the book based on its description understandably want to hear the full story we came for, and more about secondary characters we learn to appreciate.
  3. The book would benefit from a few minor corrections. At least twice the author drops into present tense mid-paragraph. While I am a fan of changing points of view, they approach a dizzying pace on some pages. Also, each chapter begins with lyrics from well known songs. I understand how tempting that is, because music is so powerful, but I doubt these lyrics were used with permission of the artists and believe a book about respect for others should do better in this regard.

In spite of these flaws, I commend the author for his deft handling of difficult topics and recommend this book to advocates of social justice everywhere.

Buy this book on Amazon.

The excerpt I liked best: (The font of the following excerpt is to indicate that the character is having a flashback.)

“This is bullshit.”

 “Now Sheri, we don’t use that language here.”

 “The hell we don’t. ‘Bullshit’ is a lot less dangerous than the language you’re using. Telling me that it was my fault, that I wanted it, that I probably enjoyed it. You weren’t there. You didn’t have some … jock sitting on your belly holding your nose while he poured liquor down your throat. … You didn’t get raped. And raped and raped and raped. “

 “Now Sheri, talk like that doesn’t help anyone.”

 “It helps me.”

 “No, it doesn’t. You’re fixating again. To recover …”

 “Recovery, hell…The girl was raped. Rape is not an issue. It’s not an obsession or compulsion or neurosis you recover from. It’s not an addiction that you are in recovery from. It’s not something you own, it’s something that owns you. It’s a violation. It’s a big gaping wound. If you’re lucky you survive it and it heals over, but it leaves a scar that is always there. You don’t recover from it. You don’t even get to the place where you say you’re in recovery. You just is. ‘Raped’ is a part of you the rest of your life. But you wouldn’t know about that, you tight-assed little white male f…”

This review is part of a book review tour sponsored by Goddess Fish Promotions.
Read more reviews at:
May 8: Stormy Nights Reviewing and Bloggin’
May 17: Emily Carrington

If you are interested in a review from me: I hope to review more books relating specifically to women’s issues. I am willing to review both non-fiction and fiction. Please do not ask me to review romance novels here, or stories which promote any particular religion. If you would like to be considered for a review contact me at Teddie (dot) Zeitman (at) gmail (dot) com.

Final Note:  I received a free pdf of this book, which would never be enough to entice me to write a better review for anyone.

 

 

I write because it’s cheaper than therapy

It turns out you can buy a whole collection of “cheaper than therapy” t-shirts and most of them make the valid point that doing something physical, or doing something you love, is good for your mental health. I guess the remaining ones (mostly about chocolate, wine and beer) make the point that the occasional indulgence is helpful too.

Most people I know who write, do include “writing as therapy” as one of their reasons. Sometimes it is the main one. I’m no exception. Writing anything is an outlet for me, and it is one of the reasons I blog, and at times keep a journal. In some ways the journal is the best mental health tool, because it is a place where I can explore my own issues without giving any thought to a reader.

However, fiction provides a sort of veil between my raw emotions and a make believe story while it allows me to delve deep into issues that might never surface in something more contained like a journal. Creating a plot has a certain non-linear element of surprise to it that can take me exactly to the places where I least want to go.

When I started my first novel, I promised myself I would do my best to write without fear. Some of that entailed pretending that no one I knew would ever read my book. (I still have to pretend that sometimes.) I got the chance to go to Ireland in the middle of my first novel, and toured the Jameson distillery. I was surprised to learn that every bottle of Jameson contains the two Latin words “Sine Metu.” Without Fear. Well, Mr. Jameson and I seem to have things in common.

I have a theory about writers block. So far, in my case, it is caused by one of two things. The first, and easiest to solve, is that my body needs something and I’m ignoring it. Usually it’s sleep, but sometimes it’s food or water or even a trip to the bathroom. My brain will eventually cease to create until I care for myself.

The other is that I want to go somewhere with the story and I’m censoring myself. Occasionally it’s because I have another direction I want the plot to go, but more often it’s because something deep within wants to take the story into territory that bothers me. I’ve learned that my muse becomes silent until I relent and stride into the dark forest that is scaring me so.

There, I find the demons that have my particular number, and as we stare each other in the eye, I become a little stronger and they become a bit less terrifying. As I write them into the ordinary, I turn them into creatures of the light.

The forest is huge and the creatures are many, so it’s not like this writing thing is a quick road to complete mental wellness, at least for me. But I do recognize that writing forces me to confront my worst of everything, and with the confrontation comes a measure of understanding.

While looking for information for this blog, I found a great post written by “The Angry Therapist” on tips for dealing with life if you can’t afford therapy.  I found the entire article worthwhile, and some of it surprising and wise. I especially liked tip seven: share your story.

A final word about therapy. Several people I’m close to either see or have seen a therapist and each one of them has benefited from it. It is, I’m told, expensive and hard work, but with the right therapist and the right attitude, it can be life altering. So please understand that I don’t mean to claim here that writing, or any other activity, can or should replace therapy when it is needed, or even wanted.

Therapy may be something I’ll try someday. Much as it may help me, I’m confident I have enough garbage in my head that writing for my mental health will always be an option for me. Besides, I have six other fine reasons to write, and there are four of them I haven’t given much thought to lately. One of them I’m kind of secretive about, and it will be the subject of my next post.

(Read more about why I write at at The Number One Reason I Write Books, Nothing cool about modest ambitions, My Eye-opening Second Reason for Writing,  I love to be loved , Remember My Name and What’s the Point? )

Moments and Movements

It’s easy to hear commentators describe the “me too” moment and feel cynical. It is tempting to lump it in with the marches for science and climate sense, and the recent amazing push by high school students for gun safety laws, and all the writing and calling so many of us have done for so many causes, and conclude it has all been useless because things aren’t any better. Is it true?

My husband and I have a fondness for procedural crime dramas, and we’ve recently gotten hooked on a series about a Wyoming sheriff from a decade ago. He and his wise Native American friend Henry handle all manner of mayhem, but a recent episode about sexual assault took a turn for the serious when justice was not had. The young female Cheyenne survivor was referred to a group of Native American women who met monthly to help women in her situation.

“How long has this been going on?” Henry is asked. He gives the questioner a funny look.

“Forever,” he answers.

The writers got that one right.

Yet, what we forget is there has been change, in this area and so many others. Both laws and attitudes about sexual harassment, sexual assault and domestic violence have slowly crept towards reasonable, as have our laws and attitudes in other areas of human fairness.

I understand there is debate about Martin Luther King’s quote “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Some argue these words discourage the hard work needed to make a better world. I see the quote  differently. I think it means that if we do the hard work, if we raise awareness and argue for fairness and believe in justice, then slowly, the inherent goodness in the human soul will respond with a gentle lean towards what is right. I think the quote means that ultimately humans are a moral people who understand and wish for goodness. Given time and encouragement, they will grow in that direction much as a plant grows towards the sun.

No single event ended segregation, no one protest stopped the Vietnam war. But over years, the hatred behind racism and the futility of needless conflicts fell out of favor with mainstream American, and differences were made. Perhaps too little. Certainly too slowly. But it was undeniably better than if there had been no progress at all.

So I try to remain hopeful as I listen to the “me too” hype. Nothing will be particularly different tomorrow. The success of the movement will be apparent a generation from now, when mothers tell their daughters how bad it once was, and the daughters have trouble believing them.

 

woman traveling alone

She’s prohibited in a few places, and frowned upon in many others. Some fear for her safety, others decide she is asking for trouble. Few cultures, if any, are totally comfortable with a woman traveling alone.

These days, she travels for her work, sometimes, and that is understandable. Other times, she is on her way to help aging parents, or to meet friends or family, and of course that makes sense. But what about the woman on a journey, a whole journey, by herself, simply for the sake of enjoying herself? At best, it seems odd to many.

Yet, she does exist, and she wants to go places.

Women have more money than in times past. They also have (on the average) more of a yen to travel. Spouses, relatives and friends may want to go, too, but when they don’t, women are opting to go alone. For many, joining a travel group provides an easier, and possibly safer, way to do this.

Now, I’ve always been someone who enjoys researching a destination and making my own plans. The internet allows for fabulous discoveries for someone willing to invest the time, and I prefer to move on my own schedule and get off the most-traveled path. But I also have always had someone, usually my husband, traveling with me, and I wonder if I am up to taking  similar trips, to a foreign country very different from my own, by myself.

I recently went to Peru, and did it with my first tour group.

There were a lot of considerations. I wasn’t traveling alone, but with my daughter, and I didn’t want the role of tour guide. I was concerned about our mutual safety, our poor grasp of Spanish, and the fairly daunting logistics of getting from Lima to Cuzco, dealing with a 12,000 elevation change, then navigating buses and trains through the Sacred Valley, and securing two of the carefully controlled tickets into Machu Picchu and then doing it all again in reverse to get home. I knew I could manage it, but it sounded more like work than fun.

So I used the internet to find a company called G Adventures, and read about their modestly priced, no-frills modular tour concept. It seemed to include them doing the hard part (clean yet cheap lodging, train tickets) and us handling our own arrival in Peru, shopping, dining and all extraneous activities. I liked the approach.

When our group of sixteen convened for the first time at a hotel in Lima, we were an eclectic mix of two mother-daughter combos, two sisters with one’s husband, a married couple, a pair of twenty-somethings, and five solos travelers. We hailed from Canada, the US, Germany and Australia.

Four of the solo people were men, and one was an independent young professional woman who impressed me with her approach. She’d always wanted to go to Peru, and finally accepted that it wasn’t a priority for anyone else she knew. So, here she was.

That’s the way to do it, I thought.

We had a great time in Peru, and the tour thing worked out quite well as this was one destination where having some help was wise. I took away more from this trip than happy memories and fine photos, however. I took away an idea.

You see, there are a lot of places in this world I want to go. Many of them do not interest my husband at all. Relatives and friends may be persuaded to go to some of these with me, but hey, I don’t think I’ve got anyone who wants to see Kyrgyzstan as bad as I do.

Guess what? G Adventures offers a trip there. They also do to Bhutan. And Cambodia. And Antarctica. And there are other companies like them. And maybe, after doing some of these, I’ll feel ready to tackle more difficult destinations on my own. And maybe not.

Either way, the world is my oyster, as long as my health and my funds hold out. You see, I came home from Peru with more than pretty scarves and coco candy. I came back with a plan; a plan of how to be a woman who travels alone.

(For more on my trip to Peru see What you don’t know …. has the power to amaze you and History at its most exciting.)